Making sense of high tech
By J. Chambless
Bob Pariseau in his media room, where he tests the latest home audio and video products. (Photo by John Chambless)
By John Chambless
Bob Pariseau has always worked on the
cutting edge of technology. Today, he's a consultant in the rarefied
world of audio, video and home theater equipment, and back at the
dawn of the 1980s, he was present at the birth of a landmark home
Tech nerds revere his name, and the cult that surrounds the early Amiga computer system regards him as a founding father. For his part, Pariseau is slightly surprised that the Amiga, which faded away in the 1990s, still attracts devotees, but he's much more interested in what's happening now.
First, a little history.
“I grew up in Pennsylvania, and went to Princeton and then Harvard, studying theoretical astrophysics,” Pariseau said during an interview at the Kennett Square townhome he shares with his partner, local artist Dan Chow. “That's physics, math and computer programming. The theoretical side of astonomy is all about inventing models of what you think is going on. Then you build a computer program to try and figure out the consequences of your model. I was doing my doctoral work, and it suddenly dawned on me that all these guys were hanging around Harvard College Observatory with nothing to do. It turns out astronomers are notoriously long-lived. Which means that the number of tenured academic positions that opens up is even less than you might expect. And I figured out that I liked the programming more than the astronomy.”
At the dawn of the home computer age, the late 1970s, Pariseau worked in California for companies making business computers, then in 1983 he was working at a company called Tandem that made mainframe computers. “I got wind of a startup company that was being formed to make a small computer,” he said. “That was very different than what I was doing at Tandem, but I thought, 'Why not?'
“That company was Amiga Corporation at the time,” he continued. “It had been founded by Jay Miner and Dave Morse. Jay came from Atari. He had designed some of the important processing chips for them. And Dave came from consumer electronics marketing and sales business. Jay's idea was that what had been done up to that point in making small computers, like the games machines, was really missing a bet. There was a lot of new stuff coming in computer graphics and processing power. Why not build a machine that would take advantage of all that stuff and still be affordable enough to be a home machine?
“He was going to build a computer that built in some of the new tricks of high-end computer graphics, along with some of the tricks of games graphics from coin-operated arcade games,” Pariseau said. “They had the idea, but you can't sell a computer without software, so they hired me to put together a team to make the software. That was May of 1983.”
The unglamorous Silicon Valley office park where Amiga began was part of an explosion of competing programmers and engineers. “We had seed money to do the software, but not much sleep,” Pariseau said of the team. “Everyone on the software development team was in one room.”
As a group of young men in their 20s, the Amiga pioneers could pretty much make up their own rules. “One of the guys used to walk around the room with a pillow in his arms, so he could sleep while he walked,” Pariseau said, laughing. Pariseau is the one who went out and bought foam-rubber bats that were used around the office to smack each other and blow off steam during the marathon days and nights.
In the headlong rush to refine computer technology and get a leg up on the competition ideas were sometimes shared. “Steve Jobs saw the Amiga computer prototype,” Pariseau recalled. “Apple had a product out called Lisa, a big, hulking box that was built on technology that had been put together by Hewlett-Packard for things like using a mouse, and having window-oriented graphics. It was a colossal flop. It was too expensive, too slow, and it just didn't attract people. Jobs was in the process of trying to replace that system. He came by to take a look at what we were doing to see if there were pieces that might make sense to incorporate. At the time we were focused on being an entertainment product, so it wasn't really a fit.
“It's never only one person who has a good idea,” he said. “But there's a lot of money involved in bringing a product to market. So there's a divide between being open and keeping your real jewels secret. It wasn't like he could walk off with the source code.”
What made the Amiga stand out at the time was its ability to multitask. Several programs could be running at one time, and the system's robust graphics in an era of green-screen blandness made it revolutionary. Microsoft Windows and the iMac had not yet been released.
“The idea of the Amiga was to be a home entertainment computer,” Pariseau said. “When we launched it, it had enough power that you could do spreadsheets, it was very good at games, you had painting and animation, you could play movies. And if you had business stuff to do, there was a way to get to that, too. It was a very unusual combination of stuff for its time.”
The Amiga needed to launch big at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1984 and secure some investors. “The chips that Jay had designed were not done at that point,” Pariseau said. “So we built circuit board emulations of the chips – stacks of eight or 10 circuit boards, stacked together, all interwired. One stack represented a single chip. They were finicky, they tended to fail. All the software was brand new, so things could fail left and right. We were showing multitasking, high-end graphics, synthesized audio, and text-to-speech demonstrations, but the demos only worked if you ran them in a specific order.”
To get the electronics from the Amiga headquarters to the Las Vegas show, “we boxed them up and bought a seat for each one of these stacks of electronics. The guys were all giddy from lack of sleep, so one of them put an airplane pillow on top of it, drew a face on it and put his jacket around it. I was on that flight.”
At the show, Pariseau said, “We had all the gadgets out front of the booth, but most of the booth space was an enclosed room with a sign-in table to get in. The hope was that we would be in there, showing this thing to people, if we could get it working.
“We tested everything and, magically, it worked. At the start of the show the next morning, we came in and saw the engineers were asleep on the floor inside the booth. They had stayed up all night to make another demo. It was the bouncing soccer ball. They had done it overnight. This was their first chance to play with the new gear.”
That demo – which will bounce forever on the internet – featured a red-and-white ball bouncing up and down on the screen. It looked three-dimensional. And the “boing” noise it later made was courtesy of Pariseau smacking a metal garage door at the Amiga headquarters with one of the foam bats to get the right resonance.
“We had investors and marketing guys come in. We opened to the press, to buyers from different companies. Everybody had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but anybody could get in,” Pariseau said. “We were just trying to make some cachet about it. We got a buyer from Sears in there, we got to the point in the demo where we showed the bouncing ball, and this guy stood up, pointed at the screen and said, 'That cannot be done!'”
The dazzling demonstration caught the interest of the Commodore Corporation, which bought the start-up Amiga. “That's how we ended up getting funded to the point that we could finish,” Pariseau said. “With the money, we got the chips manufactured. Commodore had tremendous buying power, which meant that we could get components at far less cost than we anticipated.”
On July 23, 1985, Commodore rented Lincoln Center in New York City for the splashy debut of the Amiga 1000 computer. A full orchestra performed, and Pariseau, in a tuxedo, ran the demonstration. “I had been doing all the demos for so long, and I knew the system,” he said of landing the spotlight gig. There was a photo of a baboon's colorful face rendered at a revolutionary 4,096 colors at 640x400 resolution on the monitor. Blondie vocalist Debbie Harry and art icon Andy Warhol came out to do a demonstration of the Amiga's groundbreaking paint program.
Enthusiasm was high, but the crucial Christmas holiday was approaching. By October, there were only about 50 Amiga 1000 computers in existence, all being used for demonstrations and software development. By mid-November, when the units finally started appearing on store shelves, they had missed the buying window. Retailing at about $1,600 with the monitor, the system was pricey.
But Commodore, Pariseau said, could never make up its mind what to do with the Amiga. “They wanted a business computer,” he said. “Something to compete against PCs.” The company's TV commercials didn't make much of an impact, remaining vague about what the Amiga could do. Sales struggled, and the European arm of Commodore eventually stepped forward to take over the Amiga project. “That was it for me,” Pariseau said. “It didn't make sense to stay.”
The early days of Silicon Valley “was such a weird period,” he said. “This was the same period where Atari was discovered burying unsold home computer games in a hole in the desert to try and not have to record them as unsold inventory,” he said, laughing. “It was a little like old Hollywood, with all the old-time moguls. There was a 20-something programmer that had an agent, like a movie star. His employment was negotiated by his agent, who got 10 percent of his income. Living through it, you just have to let some of this stuff flow by without it impacting you. It just gets too strange.”
He got out before Amiga – crushed by Commodore's indecision and infighting, and outpaced by Atari – eventually imploded. Microsoft and Apple raced ahead of the pack and left the Amiga frozen in time, but not entirely unloved. The computers, parts and software command high prices among collectors today, and in 2017, a company produced the A-EON Amiga X5000, using today's technology and the classic computer's name.
Pariseau moved on from Amiga by clearing out his San Francisco apartment in 2002 and eventually tossing everything related to the company. Today, he doesn't have anything left.
“I went to work for a couple of startups that were funded by Apple, including one called Taligent that was trying to make a new operating system, and then I moved to Oracle, the premier company in database systems,” he said. “Meanwhile, I still had a personal interest in home theater. I began writing for the online AVS Forum in about 2004, posting and answering people's questions. I just looked recently, and I have put 34,000 posts on the site over 14 years – all for free. I was just helping people out,” he said, smiling.
Along the way, he forged good working relationships with companies that produce high-end audio and video, and he got to test the equipment and write about it. “There are people out there who do home theater setup. They get paid to go into a house and do all the work, and they leave, and the person now has something that they have no idea how it works,” he said, laughing. “I wanted to work with people so they would actually learn this information themselves.”
Last month, Pariseau launched www.bobpariseau.com to promote his services to businesses and people who want some of his expertise. His blog on the site is entertaining and still sufficiently deep in technical details to be worthwhile for audiophiles. In his column on “torch mode” settings, for instance, he reveals that the expensive large-screen TVs that people unpack and plug in are set to a factory default of being the brightest possible. That's because they have to compete on store walls against dozens of other models. But those ultra-bright settings might not be what you like, or what is best for your viewing choices, Pariseau said. Then he explains how to turn off, or turn down, what the manufacturers have given.
And don't get him started on wires. The ones that come with your appliances are junk and should be tossed. But don't fall for the gimmick of overpriced cables, either. Those labeled “high speed cables” are often not able to handle today's 4K video. Then there's what he called the “snake oil” being peddled to consumers, such as a $5,000 power cord that's three feet long, “but the wiring in your house was put in long ago by some contractor, and the wiring to the power plant has been chewed on by squirrels, but the last three feet is going to make all the difference,” he said. “There are people selling glass vases and glass balls to 'improve the sound in your room.' There are $500 power outlet replacements” that are supposed to provide better electricity to sensitive equipment. And it's possible to spend $15,000 on a needle for your turntable.
The incompatibility of HDMI cabling and equipment causes no end of headaches for consumers, who are often faced with a blue screen that tells them nothing can be done. “The system runs constantly on the edge of failure,” Pariseau said with a sigh.
“For a lot of people, the TV is a potato,” he said. “There's something inside it, but they don't know what it is. It's undifferentiated, and God help them if it breaks, because they don't know how to fix it. They're afraid to change things. Then, if they find a place like the AVS Forum, they start tentatively complaining – 'It just doesn't look right,' or 'Why is it doing this weird thing?'” he said.
When you add in all the digital sound options and the viewing possibilities, “People have no idea what they daren't touch,” he said. “It's just a complete mystery to them.”
As the technology races ever onward, “There's no end of things for me to talk about,” Pariseau said. “You have some people who are just completely scared of the whole process and just live with what they can get. Other people will pay someone to come in and set things up for them, but it's a complete mystery. Then there are people who want to find out what's really going on, so they can do it right and feel they have some control over it. They are the type who come to AVS Forum, and then to me. I have more fun helping people learn about this stuff.”
Pariseau said he does still go to movie theaters, even though his basement setup is dazzlingly good, with surround sound and no annoying, popcorn-munching patrons. “For 3D movies, it looks better downstairs,” he said of his home theater. “Movie theater audio is set up to fill the whole theater, and it's louder to overcome the crowd noise. There are definite advantages to seeing some types of movies with a crowd, because the crowd reaction is part of it. But for really enjoying the picture and audio quality, you can do better in a properly set up home theater. That's just a fact.”
For more information, visit www.bobpariseau.com.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.